Book Review: Attracting Native Pollinators: The Xerces Society Guide to Conserving North American Bees and Butterflies and Their Habitat

How can we save the world? Simple. Get everyone to read and understand the contents of a new book, Attracting Native Pollinators: The Xerces Society Guide to Conserving North American Bees and Butterflies and Their Habitat. Why? There’s the obvious–pollinating insects provide a huge amount of our food–but they also have a few unappreciated roles.

Without pollinators, plant communities that stabilize river banks disappear. Mammals and birds that eat pollinated fruits perish. But perhaps most importantly, by raising awareness of the needs of pollinating insects we can better appreciate the damage we cause through the use of pesticides. Do we really want to live in a toxic world? A world, like China’s Sichuan Province, so choked with poison that apple farmers have to climb ladders to hand pollinate trees?

And we’re not just talking about honeybees. Attracting Native Pollinators delves into the fascinating world of native bees, bumblebees, wasps, moths and flies, providing a detailed guide on how to tell these species apart, what their nests look like and, most importantly, practical steps that everyone from a homeowner to a golf course manager can take to improve habitat. For instance, one of the most important things we can all do is simply to provide areas of open, sunny ground for pollinating species, such as bumblebees, that nest underground.

You’ll also find instructions for building nesting blocks for native bees and subterranean boxes for bumblebees. There’s also extensive plant lists for North America including both native and common non-native garden plants such as rosemary.

In our own garden we’ve planted a lot more flowering native perennials this year. But I’m also inspired to get a conversation going about creating more habitat for pollinators in public spaces. Los Angeles is full of space that could be planted with drought tolerant, flowering plants to replace the thousands of acres of lawn (mowed weeds, really) and Home Depot hedges. Think about the habitat we could create with all those barren parkways. Who’s in to help? Let’s pollinate a revolution.

Weekend Movie Recommendation: Buck

Even if you’re not owned by a horse, there’s a lot to learn from an extraordinary movie called Buck. The subject of this documentary, “horse whisperer” Buck Brannaman, crisscrosses the country teaching a method of horse training (or is it people training?) that can be applied to any animal. The results are amazing–a dance between man and horse.

Brannaman’s techniques embody a stoic calm and sensitivity born out of a miserable childhood. As a survivor of abuse, he’s very in tune with the nature and effects of fear. He teaches that the relationship we have with our animals is much more about our own baggage than what’s going on with the animal. As he puts it, “Your horse is a mirror to your soul, and sometimes you may not like what you see. Sometimes, you will.”

This is a beautifully shot and edited documentary, thought provoking and very much worth watching. Good news: if you have Netflix, it’s a available for instant viewing.

The Practical Beekeeper by Michael Bush

“There are a few rules of thumb that are useful guides. One is that when you are confronted with some problem in the apiary and you do not know what to do, then do nothing. Matters are seldom made worse by doing nothing and are often made much worse by inept intervention.”-Richard Taylor

Michael Bush, in his new book on natural beekeeping, The Practical Beekeeper Beekeeping Naturally, begins with Taylor’s quote, which could just as easily apply to gardening or many other areas of our lives. Yet doing nothing is one of the hardest things for us Homo sapiens to wrap our busy heads around. Nassim Taleb is fond of pointing out the huge number of medical mistakes that could easily have been avoided by the doctor having the courage to not intervene with some needless procedure or pharmaceutical. Up until some time in the 20th century, in fact, you were actually better off not going to see a doctor.

Michael Bush’s The Practical Beekeeper is the new bible of natural no-treatment beekeeping. Bush’s non-interventionist approach is based on the work of Dee and Ed Lusby and is at odds with conventional (beekeeping associations and academics) reliance on chemical treatments, re-queening, artificial insemination etc. Beekeeping, in my and Michael Bush’s opinion, is one of those fields, like economics, where the experts have been thoroughly discredited by recent events–our current econopocolypse and, in beekeeping, colony collapse disorder. Of CCD, Michael Bush blames chemical treatments, directed at controlling mites and other issues, which throw off the microbial balance of the beehive. Bush’s emphasis in symbiotic microbial relationships puts his work in line with soil scientist Elaine Ingham and the pro-biotic movement in human health.

The Practical Beekeeper would benefit from an index (something said of our first book) and some editing for repetition, but those minor points aside, this is a must-have book for beginning and advanced beekeepers. There’s much good, practical information and I learned a lot reading this book on a long train trip. Bush has many interesting tips and tools that you can build yourself. And it’s the few books I’ve seen that tells you how to do swarm captures and cut-outs.

Bush’s website, The Practical Beekeeper also has an encyclopedia’s worth of handy info.

Noodler’s Ink Reusable Fountain Pen


Julia just wrote a post on Ramshackle Solid about our newest solution to the frustration of disposable pens: Noodler’s Ink and fountain pens.
From the Noodler’s website:
Why Noodler’s?
“Noodler’s Ink” has the lowest cost per volume in stores that carry it and it’s 100% made in the USA from cap to glass to ink. The ink with the catfish on the label symbolizes a southern sport that attempts to equalize the struggle between man and animal in the quest for a sense of fair play — and thus a fair price.
Besides being made in the USA “from cap to glass to ink” Noodler’s appears to be especially focused on delivering value (all ink bottles are filled right to the brim) and something I had never previously thought about: ink security.
EVERY bottle has slightly different ink component proportions. This is done by hand (one of the major reasons for Noodler’s constantly being in short supply). This production method security feature enables most of our inks to be unique in a forensics lab on a per bottle basis.
Our experience is that the roller ball pen performs as well as much more expensive fountain pens, holds a lot of ink and doesn’t leak (at least ours haven’t even over multiple flights on our recent vacation). Best of all they aren’t disposable.
If you need more convincing, Lyanda Haupt has a nice post about fountain pens and Noodler’s on her blog “The Tangled Nest”: Fountain Pens for Everyday

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace

Computer modeling of complex systems has gotten us in a whole world of trouble in recent years. Filmmaker Adam Curtis has directed a superb series, about this issue, for the BBC called “All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace”. The second episode “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts” will be of particular interest to readers of this blog. It details the errors that occur when we try to model natural systems. I can’t reccomend this program highy enough. Set aside an hour today to watch this program before the BBC copyright police take it down.

Episode 2  “The Use and Abuse of Vegetational Concepts”:

Here’s the first episode “Love and Power” about what happens when computer algorithms and, shall we say, overly confident philosophers gain control over our economic life.

Episode 1: “Love and Power”:

All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace from science2art on Vimeo.

Tassajara Cookbook

Mrs. Homegrown here:

A quick cookbook review for ya’ll. I’m having lots of fun with the Tassajara Cookbook which I have out from the library. So much fun that I’m considering buying it. Tassajara Zen Mountain Center is a Buddhist monestery here in California. This book is based on their famous bagged lunch offerings for their guests. This means it’s all picnic/finger food sort of stuff. This suits me fine because summer is here, and I like making meals that require chopping rather than cooking, and that keep well in the fridge.

I love the simplicity, the pure pleasure and endless variety, of chips n’ dips, bruschetta, tapas, mezza… I could live entirely on appetizers and finger foods. This is why I like this book so much. Mr. Homegrown is not as happy–he’s a more of a three-square meal a day sort of guy. But he’s surviving, because for now, in the heat, he’d rather scoop up pesto with crudités than break down and cook.

This book is vegetarian, with plenty o’ vegan recipes. It focuses very much on spreads, dips, pestos, tapenades, sandwich fillings–that sort of thing, as well as various composed salads. It also has a large cookie section, which I’ve not allowed myself to explore yet. The tone of the food is cheerfully high end California hippie: healthy, vibrant, and heavy on the nuts. (No, that’s not a California joke!).

I was surprised by all the haters at Amazon when I checked the reviews of this book. The primary objections are that it’s 1) all snacky stuff–to which I answer they should read the cover and 2) that it’s poorly edited–to which I answer it hasn’t bothered me yet. For instance, if the recipe says preheat the oven at the start, and then goes on to say something has to marinate for two hours before it bakes, I’m not going to blow a gasket. I’ll just hunker down and ponder my way out of that deeply confusing situation.

Waiting for our tomatoes/Tomatoland

grow! grow faster!

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Via Boing Boing, I found this excerpt on Onearth Magazine’s website, from a new book called Tomatoland by Barry Estabrook, which is apparently a document of all the indignities suffered by the industrial tomato–the tomato that sits, bright red, useless and flavorless, on store shelves year round, country-wide. Here at the Root Simple compound, we choose to eat tomatoes seasonally–when they’re coming out of our yard–and make do with canned and dried tomatoes for the rest of the year. Basically, we believe that fresh tomatoes are a privilege, not a right. Right now our tomato plants are covered with blossoms and tiny green fruit, and I’m almost frantic for fresh tomatoes. (The basil is in! Where’s the tomatoes?!?) Yet I know better than to buy a tomato at a store. I haven’t for years.

In this excerpt, Estabrook explains why Erik and I avoid store-bought tomatoes like a plague. I haven’t read his book, so can’t comment on the whole, but I liked the excerpt. It focuses on the tomato industry in Florida. Here in California, we’re not often offered Florida tomatoes. Ours seem to come mostly from Mexico at this time of year–and I have no idea how those tomatoes are grown. Are they better than Florida tomatoes, which are coaxed reluctantly from nitrogen-free sand beds, with massive inputs of chemical fertilizers and pesticides?

…they must be protected from competitive weeds, disease spores, and especially nematodes, which thrive in Florida. Growers have a ready solution to these problems. They kill everything in the soil. To do so, they fumigate the beds with methyl bromide*, one of the most toxic chemicals in conventional agriculture’s arsenal… The chemical is injected into the newly formed beds, which are immediately sealed beneath a tight wrapper of polyethylene plastic mulch. Then the growers wait while the chemical does its lethal work. Within two weeks, every living organism — every insect, fungus, weed seed, and germ — in the beds is dead. “It’s like chemotherapy,” said Ozores-Hampton. Once the soil is suitably lifeless, it’s time to plant tomatoes.

And methyl bromide is just the start–it’s just soil prep. The tomato growers use a large chemical arsenal to bring their crops to fruition:

U.S. Department of Agriculture studies found traces of thirty-five pesticides on conventionally grown fresh tomatoes: endosulfan, azoxystrobin, chlorothalonil, methamidophos, permethrin trans, permethrin cis, fenpropathrin, trifloxystrobin, o-phenylphenol, pieronyl butoxide, acetamprid, pyrimethanil, boscalid, bifenthrin, dicofol p., thiamethoxam, chlorpyrifos, dicloran, flonicamid, pyriproxyfen, omethoate, pyraclostrobin, famoxadone, clothianidin, cypermethrin, clothianidin, cypermethrin, fenhexamid, oxamyl, diazinon, buprofezin, cyazofamid, deltamethrin, acephate, and folpet. It is important to note that residues of these chemicals were below levels considered to be harmful to humans, but in high enough concentrations, three are known or probable carcinogens, six are neurotoxins, fourteen are endocrine disruptors, and three cause reproductive problems and birth defects.

Yes, it important to note that “residues of these chemicals were below levels considered to be harmful to humans” but I dunno…I’d rather skip them altogether, thankyouverymuch.

And is the result of this chemical onslaught a delicious tomato? A “well, it was worth all that methyl bromide” sort of tomato? No, indeed, it is not. All of the resulting tomatoes are picked while green and hard and reddened by application of ethylene gas, eliminating any possibility that they will ever develop flavor. Taste plays no part in the equation. As one of the growers says:

“People just want something red to put in their salad.”

I grew up on flavorless, industrial tomatoes, and as a child, I assiduously picked them off everything I was fed. In retrospect, I don’t blame my young self–they were horrible. Believe it or not,  I didn’t know what a real tomato tasted like until I was 20 or so, not until an aggressive fruit vendor foisted a slice of heirloom tomato on me and I was too polite not to eat it in front of him. The flavor exploded in my mouth. It was–truly–a life changing revelation.

I wonder if more people grew up eating the real thing whether the bottom would fall out of the market for these ghastly Franken-tomatoes? Or are we really satisfied just to have “something red” in our salads?

*Reading the latest scientific literature, Erik has learned that methyl bromide is being phased out of the FL tomato biz, not because of toxicity, but because it generates too much greenhouse gas. (What a charming substance!) There’s no saying it will be replaced by anything less toxic.

Hugo, humanure and nettles

One of the original illustrations to Les Misérables (1862)

Mrs. Homegrown here:

Anne, our neighbor with the pea-ravaging Chihuahua, brings to our attention the fact that Victor Hugo was a humanure enthusiast, and in fact dedicates long passages of Les Misérables to it.

This is taken from Volume V, Book 2 (The Intestine of the Leviathan), Chapter One, provided by Project Gutenberg:

Paris casts twenty-five millions yearly into the water. And this without metaphor. How, and in what manner? Day and night. With what object? With no object. With what intention? With no intention. Why? For no reason. By means of what organ? By means of its intestine. What is its intestine? The sewer.

Twenty-five millions is the most moderate approximative figure which the valuations of special science have set upon it.

Science, after having long groped about, now knows that the most fecundating and the most efficacious of fertilizers is human manure. The Chinese, let us confess it to our shame, knew it before us. Not a Chinese peasant—it is Eckberg who says this,—goes to town without bringing back with him, at the two extremities of his bamboo pole, two full buckets of what we designate as filth. Thanks to human dung, the earth in China is still as young as in the days of Abraham. Chinese wheat yields a hundred fold of the seed. There is no guano comparable in fertility with the detritus of a capital. A great city is the most mighty of dung-makers. Certain success would attend the experiment of employing the city to manure the plain. If our gold is manure, our manure, on the other hand, is gold.

What is done with this golden manure? It is swept into the abyss. 


Fleets of vessels are dispatched, at great expense, to collect the dung of petrels and penguins at the South Pole, and the incalculable element of opulence which we have on hand, we send to the sea. All the human and animal manure which the world wastes, restored to the land instead of being cast into the water, would suffice to nourish the world.

Those heaps of filth at the gate-posts, those tumbrels of mud which jolt through the street by night, those terrible casks of the street department, those fetid drippings of subterranean mire, which the pavements hide from you,—do you know what they are? They are the meadow in flower, the green grass, wild thyme, thyme and sage, they are game, they are cattle, they are the satisfied bellows of great oxen in the evening, they are perfumed hay, they are golden wheat, they are the bread on your table, they are the warm blood in your veins, they are health, they are joy, they are life. This is the will of that mysterious creation which is transformation on earth and transfiguration in heaven. 

I’ll stop there, but it goes on…and Anne says he brings it up again later.

As I recall, Hugo also had a thing for nettles….hey, wait a minute! Turns out that his rant about nettles is in Les Mis too:

One day he saw some country people busily engaged in pulling up nettles; he examined the plants, which were uprooted and already dried, and said: “They are dead. Nevertheless, it would be a good thing to know how to make use of them. When the nettle is young, the leaf makes an excellent vegetable; when it is older, it has filaments and fibres like hemp and flax. Nettle cloth is as good as linen cloth. Chopped up, nettles are good for poultry; pounded, they are good for horned cattle. The seed of the nettle, mixed with fodder, gives gloss to the hair of animals; the root, mixed with salt, produces a beautiful yellow coloring-matter. Moreover, it is an excellent hay, which can be cut twice. And what is required for the nettle? A little soil, no care, no culture. Only the seed falls as it is ripe, and it is difficult to collect it. That is all. With the exercise of a little care, the nettle could be made useful; it is neglected and it becomes hurtful. It is exterminated. How many men resemble the nettle!” He added, after a pause: “Remember this, my friends: there are no such things as bad plants or bad men. There are only bad cultivators.”



I’ve never read Les Misérables, but I’m beginning to think it should be required reading–just for his asides. It’s time to face my PTSD from the musical and embrace the book–all three billion pages of it.

Nurturing the Next Generation of Nature Lovers

Recently, a friend of mine took her daughters for a visit to their pediatrician. She was shocked when her doctor told her on average a child in the Los Angeles area only spends 15 minutes outside each day.
I have always been interested about how children forge a relationship with the world outside. What happens when the door from inside to outside is opened? Is the child given the time and space to build a relationship?
Since becoming a parent, my interest has become even more acute. I discovered Richard Louv’s book Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder where he takes a critical look at children’s shrinking access to unstructured time outdoors. Louv asks who will protect the world outside if they have no connection to it? He argues that the next generation of nature lovers will only grow when they have the space and time to be outside and fall in love.
I think it merits more than 15 minutes a day, but that’s a start.